The single exposed corner of my house in Rome is shielded by the battered stub of an ancient column. The marble cylinder, with its worn fluting, must have been sunk into the sandy soil of Trastevere, the ancient neighborhood trans Tiberim (across the Tiber), sometime in the fourteenth century to deflect wayward carts and their heavy axles, but it deters wayward delivery trucks and wobbly tourists on electric scooters just as reliably. Virtually every corner in the oldest parts of Rome has a similar protector, most of them bits of carved stone scavenged from the ruins of the ancient city.
Many older Roman buildings, like my house, also used stubs of antique columns to support an arched open porch, once a standard touch of elegance for the ground floors of medieval houses and palazzi, both public, like the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill, and private. My own porch columns—borrowed, perhaps, from the Naumachia, the great water theater that the emperor Augustus installed in Trastevere—disappeared long ago. By decree of Pope Sixtus IV (who built the Sistine Chapel), most of Rome’s columned porches were walled up in the late 1470s, but many palazzi still have their medieval façades buried inside the walls, their supporting columns salvaged from ancient monuments like the Theater of Pompey, the Naumachia of Augustus, and the Stadium of Domitian, which were already half-buried beneath layer upon layer of silt from the Tiber’s frequent floods.
These fragments were probably no more than convenient, available, and evidently durable material for the masons who built houses for medieval shopkeepers, but when Pope Innocent II decided to remodel the venerable church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in 1140, he borrowed from the monuments of ancient Rome with deliberate and spectacular intent. For him, these tangible traces of another era were charged with meaning, majesty, and beauty, telling the story of a mighty empire that once spanned all three continents of the world he knew but had been brought to heel by a new religion, toppled by invaders, reduced to a territory in central Italy, and now, in the twelfth century, was looking hopefully toward better times.
As a baron, the former Gregorio Papareschi had his own splendid Roman ruin to mine for ancient marbles: the Baths of Caracalla belonged to his family as a feudal property. Roman bathing habits had changed with the advent of Christianity (Church fathers like Jerome and Augustine took a dim view of all those bare bodies engaged in such pleasurable activity), and the severing of Rome’s aqueducts in the sixth century made bathing in Caracalla’s magnificent facility (or Trajan’s, or Diocletian’s) impossible. Instead, Innocent towed cartloads of Caracalla’s columns, lintels, and slabs of colored marble across the river to make the glorious offering of a spacious basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which was supported on columns from the ancient baths, some topped by Ionic capitals bearing tiny images of the Egyptian deities Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates, to whom Caracalla was devoted.
In part, Pope Innocent may have stripped the Baths of Caracalla for some of the same reasons that his ninth-century predecessor Paschal I took a lintel from the emperors’ palace on the Palatine Hill to grace his new chapel in the church of Santa Prassede: because such marvels lay beyond the abilities of his own stonemasons. But precisely because of projects like the remodeling of Santa Maria in Trastevere, that situation began to change: intimate contact with the ancient stones became an education in itself. By the end of the twelfth century, the stoneworkers of medieval Rome had turned into masters in their own right: carvers, designers, and architects who understood not only the physical qualities of their precious ancient materials but also their radiant beauty and something of the historical, spiritual, and symbolic significance to be found in them. Inspired by antiquity, they learned to perform their own miracles, adjusting the ancient canons to their own tastes for slimmer columns, loftier interiors, and a great freedom to invent new forms.
At the same time the judicious stripping of ancient monuments became a local Roman industry: bricks, columns, and roof tiles were cleaned and sorted to serve again as bricks, columns, and roof tiles; bronze clamps in their lead sheaths were melted down to become coins, tools, and plumb bobs; marble pavements were cut into smaller pieces and reset in new abstract patterns; statues of the pagan gods were baked in kilns to provide lime for mortar and whitewash. For these professional recyclers, the reuse of durable materials may have been no more than a matter of simple practicality, but for the artists and patrons of medieval and early modern Rome (or any other city with a long history: Cairo, Baghdad, Split, Mexico City) the reuse of ancient objects involved an intricate tangle of complex motives, not all of them conscious. Did the Florentine cobbler who used part of Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome in the Wilderness as a wedge for his bench ever really look at his treasure? The thirteenth-century Roman stonecutters who reshaped some ninth-century marble rood screens to make window frames for the glittering new façade of Santa Maria Maggiore were probably paying backhanded tribute to their less skilled but devoted predecessors, but the carved front of an ancient marble sarcophagus from Ostia Antica, the port of Rome, was probably outfitted, sculpted side up, as an early Christian toilet seat to heap the ultimate contempt on its “pagan” images.
These are some of the mysteries of use and reuse, purpose and repurpose, that the curators Salvatore Settis and Anna Anguissola and the architect Rem Koolhaas explored in “Recycling Beauty,” an exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, a former gin distillery in a seedy industrial zone transformed eight years ago into a glittering venue for contemporary art. (Literally glittering: one of its pavilions is covered in 200,000 sheets of pure gold leaf.) Together with its lavish, thoughtful catalog, the exhibition offered a wealth of viewpoints on a complex phenomenon, focusing on a choice range of objects that appeal poignantly to the eye, mind, and spirit, and addressing the urgent need of the present to conserve resources (and not just physical resources) by turning, sagely, to the suggestive power of the past.
Koolhaas and his associate Giulio Margheri outfitted the exhibition hall as a study room, placing some of the smaller objects on “cubicle-like” desks, each provided with a chair to encourage closer scrutiny. The life-size and terrifyingly realistic statue of a lion dispatching a horse stood below eye level on a dramatic black slab set within a sort of conversation pit, a sunken area just deep and broad enough for school groups to sit comfortably on all four sides of the sculpture to hear its remarkable history. We can read the same tale at beguiling length in the catalog entry. One of the exhibition’s signal virtues is this catalog, with its distinguished list of contributors, its broad range of essays, and entries that do justice to the tangled tales each one of these remarkable objects has to tell. Recycling Beauty is above all an enthralling storybook.
The lion and the horse’s body, it seems, were carved in antiquity (perhaps in the Greek world at the time of Alexander the Great as part of a much larger sculptural group), but the first records of their existence go back to the Middle Ages, when the lion, not the wolf, symbolized Rome, and Romans thought that the zigzagging perimeter of their ancient city wall traced the outline of a rampant lion. When we first hear of it, the statue stood at the top of the Capitoline Hill, in the place where the city’s magistrates pronounced capital sentences. It was a tangible symbol of Roman justice exacting its implacable toll: the lion sinks his teeth deep into the horse’s back as his claws visibly rip through the poor creature’s skin. At some point an enterprising sculptor supplied the horse with its somewhat clumsy head and legs, which lack the taut pathos and the expertly polished surface of its lacerated body.
Only later was this king of beasts replaced in Roman affections by the famous bronze wolf, long thought to be Etruscan but now definitely ascribed to the thirteenth century, and provided with figures of the infants Romulus and Remus by a Renaissance sculptor in the late fifteenth century, probably when Pope Sixtus IV opened the papal collection of antiquities to the public. (Today the lion, horse, wolf, and twins are normally on permanent display in the contemporary version of that same institution, the Capitoline Museums, the first public museum in the world, opened in 1734 by Pope Clement XII.)
As the ostensibly Etruscan Capitoline Wolf reminds us, the physical legacy of the Roman Empire was vast in its geographical extension and absorbed people and influences from all the cultures it met along the way. A bronze tabletop, inlaid in silver with Egyptian figures and hieroglyphic inscriptions, emerged from the ruins of a temple of Isis, the Iseum Campense (near today’s Piazza Venezia in Rome), sometime in the early sixteenth century. For early modern scholars, the inlaid images of Isis and the easily accessible texts promised a new key to understanding the hieroglyphs, and engraved copies of the decorations spread widely through the Republic of Letters.
Late medieval Romans were already obsessed with Egypt. The master stoneworker Pietro Vassalletto (who knew Latin as well as how to carve with angelic skill) supplied the magnificent new cloister for the cathedral of St. John Lateran with two sphinxes, complete with pharaonic nemes headdresses, probably modeled on examples from one of ancient Rome’s three sanctuaries of Isis. Saint Stephen declared to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:22 that Moses had been initiated into all the mysteries of the Egyptians; hence sixteenth-century Christian scholars yearned to be initiated too, and scried this metal tabletop for answers. They had little else to go on: the obelisks of Rome still lay buried underground—all but the Vatican obelisk, but its surfaces were blank. Plutarch’s essay On Isis and Osiris deciphered a handful of hieroglyphs, and a late antique writer identified as Horapollo provided a few more. Unfortunately, however, the Mensa Isiaca (Table of Isis) provided no help: like the Capitoline Wolf, the Isis-themed artifact looked far older than it was. It was crafted in the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian between 81 and 96 CE, perhaps in Rome, and the hieroglyphs are meaningless.
Another sculpture long taken as ancient is a marble relief panel showing two boxers in a memorable battle described in Vergil’s Aeneid: the brash young Trojan Dares and the Sicilian Entellus, a former champion content to rest on his laurels until his companions urge him on and he throws his old boxing gear into the ring. The strapping Dares gains an initial advantage, but then the old fighting spirit seizes Entellus, who rallies with such fury that Aeneas stops the match and grants the aging boxer the prize, a beautiful bull, which Entellus dispatches for sacrifice with one well-placed punch.
The pair formed the basis for an engraving produced by Marco Dente in the early 1520s, apparently clinching its claim to antiquity, but clean-shaven Dares’s dramatically turned back is evidently inspired by the much smaller reliefs on ancient Roman sarcophagi (where the miniature scale makes such bold twists and turns less physically implausible), while Entellus holds his wrists in two graceful arcs that belong more to contemporary Renaissance maniera than the stern old Roman virtus evoked by Vergil’s tale, and his drapery flies up improbably with an uncanny resemblance to the unruly red cloak of Andrea Mantegna’s Vulcan in his late-fifteenth-century painting Parnassus. This ancient-looking relief was probably carved in the early sixteenth century. Sixteenth-century sculpted bodies, as another legacy of medieval taste, move in space with more elasticity than their ancient counterparts; we can see it not only in Dares and Entellus but also in the supple Magdalensberg Youth, a Renaissance copy of an ancient bronze, with a twist.
A red marble throne with a capacious hole in its seat is identified in the catalog as what it looks like: an ostentatiously expensive commode, made to mimic the hardest and most prestigious of all ancient stones, porphyry, a special variety of colored granite wrested from an Egyptian mountainside and shipped down the Nile and across the sea to Italy. This distinctive throne, and a twin in the Louvre, are carved instead from the blood-red marble known as rosso antico (old red), which, like porphyry, was the color of the ancient world’s most precious dye, Tyrian purple, gouged from the flesh of thousands of snails off the coast of Lebanon. (Antiquity provides examples of horrific environmental waste as well as commendable thrift—think of the animals and people sacrificed in Roman arenas, and the extinction of silphium, the Libyan swamp plant that tempted ancient palates more than any other delicacy: ice cream, white truffles, or stuffed dormice.) The two thrones, probably crafted in the age of the emperor Hadrian, who was responsible for an impressive overhaul of Roman public latrines (their walls colorfully painted with flowers or, in one case, gladiators), have also been identified since late medieval times, and by some modern scholars, as imperial birth chairs; in the past, women often gave birth sitting up, enlisting the help of gravity during labor. In support of that idea, the backs of the two red thrones are set an angle that encourages reclining rather than sitting.
A third throne, of white marble, is still preserved in the cloister of St. John Lateran (the same cloister outfitted by Vassalletto with protective sphinxes). Its seat also has a hole, but a tiny one, just enough to pass a cord through to keep a cushion from slipping. In the Middle Ages, these three pieces of furniture became part of the rituals that accompanied a pope’s formal “possession” of the Lateran Basilica, the first church to be consecrated by the emperor Constantine and still the mother church of Roman Catholicism (and thus the inveterate rival of that upstart St. Peter’s). As the pope-elect sank down onto the white marble throne, he recited the psalm “He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill; That he may set him with princes, even with the princes of his people” and then moved on to the red thrones in a transit that symbolized the birth implicit in his new reign. Because of its connection with the ritual of the papal possessio, the white marble throne, set between coiling thirteenth-century marble spires inlaid with bands of glass mosaic, earned the nickname sedes stercoraria (shitty seat), while the two red marble thrones, which may have started life as real sedes stercorariae, were seen as evocations of the imperial purple.
The spires and mosaic inlays of the Lateran cloister and the elaborate medieval frame of the sedes stercoraria are executed in a style known now as “Cosmatesque,” a modern term derived from the Cosmati dynasty of stoneworkers—masters, like their contemporaries from the Vassalletto clan, who had learned over several generations to rework ancient marble and then, silently schooled by their ancient predecessors, to design and execute superb creations of their own (including a floor in Westminster Abbey). “Recycling Beauty” provided a sampling of Cosmatesque inlays from the cathedral at Anagni, south of Rome, where both the Cosmati and the Vassalletto families worked in the thirteenth century. (The curators suggest how the two clans might have parceled out specific tasks.)
Most of the white marble for Cosmatesque work comes from the Luni quarries in Carrara, but one glittering square on display is hewn from Greek island marble, which sparkled egregiously in the light-filled exhibition space. The finely patterned inlays incorporate precious stones from the far-flung regions of the ancient Roman Empire: bright green, immensely hard serpentine from Greece; glassy yellow giallo antico from Tunisia; porphyry from Egypt; granite from Aswan and Sardinia; and occasional touches of agate or mother-of-pearl.
Some particularly precious ancient objects have been handed down for two millennia without interruption, like the extraordinary agate cameos created in the first years of the Roman Empire and passed through generations of hands as treasures in their own right or incorporated as symbolic elements into later book bindings, crowns, and reliquaries. The most famous example of such a perennial object may be the vessel now known as the Farnese Cup. Carved from translucent sardonyx agate in cameo technique, its colors alternating between a deep, walnut-toned brown and pearly white, it displays a head of Medusa on its outer surface and a gathering of gods on the inside. The gods, male and female, mature and youthful, seem to be inspired by Egyptian as well as Greek mythology, fittingly for an object that was probably created in Alexandria for the court of the Ptolemies. (One theory holds that Cleopatra VII commissioned it during her involvement with Mark Antony.) From Alexandria it passed to Rome, perhaps in 31 BCE, when Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by the future emperor Augustus, and thence, with the rest of the imperial collections, on to the New Rome, Constantinople.
In 1204, when the armies of the Fourth Crusade decided to attack Constantinople rather than bothering to go as far as Jerusalem, it disappeared from view, but was mentioned again in 1239 as a prized possession of King Frederick II of Swabia and Sicily, the remarkable monarch known in his day as the stupor mundi, the “wonder of the world.” (Frederick, who obtained the vessel from Provençal merchants traveling through Sicily, must have understood and valued its imperial pedigree, for one portrait bust of the stupor mundi duplicates the distinctly unmedieval hairstyle of the emperor Augustus, cowlicks and all.) It may have stayed in Palermo until 1253, when it went traveling again. A Persian illustrator drew it around 1430, possibly in Herat, but in 1450 Alfonso of Aragon, the king of Naples, bought it for his own collection.
Fifteen years later, it was in Florence, the property of Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, then in Rome with Cardinal Pietro Barbo, an avid collector of cameos who was elected Pope Paul II in 1464. At the pontiff’s death, the Barbo cameos passed to his successor, Sixtus IV, and from Sixtus to Lorenzo de’ Medici, “Il Magnifico.” Lorenzo’s “chalcedony bowl” remained in the Medici collection in Florence for several decades, but when Duke Alessandro de’ Medici was assassinated in 1537, his redoubtable widow, Margaret “Madama” Habsburg, made sure that it came with her when she fled Florence for Rome, where she married her second husband, Ottavio Farnese. She bequeathed it in her will to their son, Alessandro Farnese, from whom the Farnese Cup received its present name. From Ottavio’s stronghold in Parma the cup eventually moved, through Elisabetta Farnese, queen of Spain, to Naples, where it has remained ever since—except for a brief escape to Palermo in 1798–1806 to avoid Napoleon and his forces, and now a brief trip to Milan.
Small objects like the Farnese Cup, engraved gems, and stone cameos are better equipped to survive the millennia than colossi, as we know by hearsay from the sad collapse of the Colossus of Rhodes and can see at first hand from the full-size reconstruction in “Recycling Beauty” of the massive cult statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the supreme god who dominated Rome from his gigantic temple on the summit of the Capitoline Hill until Christianity put his reign to an end. The erstwhile Thunderer found his bearded head replaced by an immense marble portrait of the emperor Constantine (or perhaps the colossal face belongs to Constantine’s brother-in-law and rival, Maxentius), his jovial curls by a late antique bowl cut. His right hand, its fingers once gracefully wrapped around the orb of the world, was reset at a ninety-degree angle to aim toward Heaven, and his long, tapered index finger was replaced by a stubby digit that points stolidly skyward.
Two stories high, swathed in an endless expanse of gilded robe—but with one knee bare, a detail that may allude to his maiestas (divine majesty)—the exhibition’s reconstructed Jupiter/Constantine, housed inside a pavilion called the Cistern, cut an undeniably impressive figure, but a figure that was just as undeniably awkward. Giants have never been famous for their grace; the laws of gravity weigh too heavily on them. Furthermore, Roman emperors loved to substitute their own heads on colossi and triumphal relief, as in the case of the gigantic bronze statue of the emperor Nero that gave its name to the Colosseum. Originally designed for the vestibule of Nero’s fabled Golden House, it was meant to portray the Sun, but its divinely perfect body supported an all-too-human portrait of the emperor himself. Moved after Nero’s death to make way for the emperor Vespasian’s huge arena, the Colossus also received a new, more attractive godlike head with a radiate crown—at least until the mad, vain emperor Commodus replaced it with a bearded portrait of himself in his favorite incarnation as Hercules. Crazy Commodus lost his head in turn to the clean-shaven Sun under the emperor Septimius Severus, and some sources report that Constantine retired the Sun’s head and substituted a portrait of himself.
Rather than beauty, venustas, these re-capitated colossi were recycling the other governing criterion for art and life in ancient Rome, auctoritas (authority). For the Roman architectural writer Vitruvius, beauty itself commanded auctoritas, and if we look at the legacy of ancient beauty in these ever-adaptable objects, or in ever-adaptable cities like Rome, we can see how deeply he understood the ways of the world, then, now, and forever.